It's not difficult to believe that Jessica Lea Mayfield was a precocious child. Just listening to her songs, one hears a talent beyond her 20 years, and a drawling, heart-heavy twang that shares guileless broadcasts from her very nerve endings. There's a shadowy pall to the Ohioan's songs, and though she's quick enough with a smile or a laugh, she readily confesses to a dark, cynical side preoccupied with weighty matters.
Or perhaps that was last week. "I'm 20 and my opinions change every three seconds," Mayfield quips between sips of coffee. "I started painting rooms in my house, and I'm, 'I don't like this color anymore. What the hell was I thinking?'" Yes, she's 20 and recently bought a four-bedroom house. Women may generally mature faster than men, but Mayfield's off the chart.
Perhaps that's why last year's country-blues debut LP, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, is so captivating -- even though most of the songs were written when she was 15 or 16. Mayfield's parents play bluegrass, and she set upon a music career almost since her first thought. While the songs that always echoed about the house, and the instruments frequently set up in the front room, probably laid the foundation, it was ultimately Dave Grohl's video for "My Hero" that crystallized the structure.
"The first thoughts I can remember was just starting to wonder what am I going to do when I'm older, and those sort of things," Mayfield recalls. "I saw that video and I was like, 'That's what I want to do. I want to be a rock star.'"
After she released the six-song White Lies EP five years ago, a copy found its way into the hands of Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, who offered to record her next album. His sure feel guides the new record, matching the stormy emotions with suitably overcast environs. "He understood my sound and my songwriting -- the sadness and the sort of dark tone to it," she says.
Auerbach's blues background and evocative bursts of guitar are definitely suited to Mayfield's material, but her hardy spirit is just as central. On the spunky, wistful "For Today," she sings,
I love the sound of you walking away
And I can see clearer
And I am getting closer
To finding out just who I am
Without you in the way.
Even a presumably upbeat song like "You've Won Me Over" is haunted with dark foreboding, as she sings, "It's okay if you love me / Because you love everyone you know."
Mayfield's always been self-possessed and somewhat jaded. Blame for the former is probably related to the fact that she was home-schooled, and spent much more time alone than in the company of others. Whether that tends to breed a brooding nature is anyone's guess, but for Mayfield it helped engender deep thinking at a tender age.
"I've always thought about things from every angle, and it made me somewhat darker than everyone else," she explains. "All these bubbly people who don't really pay attention to anything piss me off. Even as a very young kid, I was very angry about religion. Like, 'Really, you believe that? I'm 10 and I don't believe that. Dude in the sky? The Devil? Hell? Are you kidding me?'"
She says she's been rediscovering that anger of late, then quickly backtracks with the suggestion that "angry might not be the best word, but my [new] songs definitely aren't that sad." Currently on a break from relationships (and yes, usually with men a decade older), she's been writing about resolving her personal conflicts, exploring the tension between what she'd like to be and what she is. It's a fitting change after the more relational matter of her debut.
"When you're 20 and you're singing about your first boyfriend and the first time you felt any of those kinds of feelings every single night, it's so old," she says. "Great. I have to go to Illinois and sing about the first guy I ever kissed. For an hour. Awesome," she sneers.
Needlessly to say, Mayfield's anxious to start recording her next album with Auerbach. She already has a stockpile of songs, and expects work should commence soon. While she gives no indication she's moving away from her Americana sound, she could care less about people's expectations.
"Mainly I want to live up to my own expectations -- that's what's important to me," she says. "I don't want to release anything I'm embarrassed of. And if people like it, they like it. And if they don't they can suck it."
She laughs. But you know, as with the words she sings, she definitely means it.
WYEP Final Fridays featuring Jessica Lea Mayfield. 7 p.m. Fri., Sept. 25. Schenley Plaza, Oakland. Free. 412-381-9131 or www.wyep.org
- Playing for keeps: Jessica Lea Mayfield.